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VA's Embattled Healthcare Chief to Retire

Dr. Robert Petzel, Undersecretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, answers a question about electronic medical at a joint Congressional hearing on July 10, 2013 in Washington, D.C.  C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes

The Department of Veterans Affairs has begun looking for a successor to Dr. Robert Petzel, chief of the frequently criticized Veterans Health Administration, who is slated to retire in 2014.

Petzel, appointed by President Obama as Undersecretary for Health at the VA in 2010, has come under fire on Capitol Hill over management problems at VA hospitals in Georgia and Pittsburgh, where a number of patients died. He has also been criticized over the longstanding backlog of disability claims and for failing to provide lawmakers with requested information in a timely manner.

The VA said in a statement Friday that Petzel would be retiring “as planned, following a four-year tenure,” but will remain in the job until the Senate confirms a successor.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki expressed his gratitude to Petzel in the statement for serving veterans’ healthcare needs for four decades and “for his leadership in transforming VHA’s health care delivery system to better care for veterans.”

Earlier this month, the House Veterans Affairs Committee relocated to Pittsburgh for a hearing on the deaths of patients at VA hospitals, including at least five who died from Legionnaires' disease at the Pittsburgh hospital.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the committee, referenced a number of problems at VA hospitals during the hearing and noted that Petzel “downplayed the problems by referring to them as ‘kerfuffles.' "

The committee has been especially critical of VA for awarding bonuses to officials managing some of the hospitals, including $63,000 awarded to the Pittsburgh VA hospital director “just three days after VA’s inspector general reported VA Pittsburgh’s response to the [Legionnaires’] outbreak was plagued by persistent mismanagement.”

Earlier this month, the Pittsburgh Tribune reported that Petzel had directed VHA business to a longtime friend and former VA official who is now a healthcare consultant in Nebraska. The paper claimed that Petzel asked a Washington-based federal contracting firm to bring on board the former director of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.

Albert “Al” Washko, who retired from the VA in March 2011, was brought in to the Sinclair Advisory Group as an associate to introduce “evidence-based decision making” to the VA, the paper reported, quoting from a posting on SAG’s website.

Seth Sinclair, who oversees business development and operations for SAG, denied there was any such deal.

“SAG has never received any requests from Dr. Petzel regarding any contracts,” Sinclair said in an email to Military.com. “When the contract in question was awarded, it was mutually agreed that Mr. Washko was highly qualified and an appropriate candidate to lead the task.”

The VA did not respond to Military.com’s request for comment on the Tribune’s story.

The VA said in its Friday statement that it is required by law to convene a search commission for the next under secretary of health. The commission will be begin its work in the fall.

Petzel, in the VA statement, said he has “appreciated the privilege to serve veterans by developing a healthcare system that reaches beyond simple treatment of diseases to a true partnership with veterans.”

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Department of Veteran Affairs Bryant Jordan
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